Friday, August 29, 2008

Seven Questions Interview: Q&A Nr. 5-1

5. More specifically, in which areas do you think America has or might have a significant contribution to Africa's development?

Hmmmmm___ that’s a tough question which is not easy to answer but I will give it my best shot. In answering your question I have had to go back and review quite a bit of material because “a significant contribution to Africa’s development” can be interpreted to mean many things. Development assistance to a country (or in this case to 53 countries) is not just financial aid and emergency humanitarian relief.

Effective development strategies involve the wise use of foreign policy and diplomacy from a government supported by the work of private organizations and foundations and the public. US strategic foreign policy objectives for Africa are very much a work-in-progress. This work involves complicated negotiations and treaties between the U.S.A. and African governments in coordination with the African Union and other regional bodies on the continent.

Despite having read many articles and reports about U.S. foreign policy and aid for Africa I remain doubtful about the impact of our foreign aid. It is difficult for the average person and taxpayer to fully comprehend the many arguments and debates about foreign aid to Africa and the rest of the developing world. It would seem that one needs a degree in economics, international development, or political science.

From what I understand the ways in which “donor nations” have delivered foreign aid to Africa is often in contradiction with the advice of the world’s leading economists and development experts, not to mention falling short of the needs of the people that this assistance is supposed to help. So please understand that my views expressed below are from a confused average citizen who like millions of other Americans is wondering “Is U.S. foreign aid and assistance to developing countries in Africa really working? And if not, how do we fix it?”

Let’s start with the first part of your question (the past) by reviewing the history and background of U.S.-Africa foreign policy and U.S. official development assistance. I realize that you (the interviewer Ana) have an excellent education in economics and history and do not need a refresher on U.S.-Africa relations. But for the sake of those readers who may not be so well versed on background of this relationship I would like to start at the beginning before talking about the present and the future.

U.S.-African relations, a brief historical overview

The history of U.S.-Africa relations from a foreign policy point-of-view is not very well known to most people outside of diplomatic and academic communities. It wasn’t until the end of World War II that the U.S. Government had formal diplomatic relations with an African country; the exceptions being Liberia, Ethiopia, and the Union of South Africa. President Abraham Lincoln extended official recognition to Liberia in 1862, 15 years after the 1847 Liberian Declaration of Independence was signed and adopted. It could be argued that the founding of the West African country of Liberia (1821-1847) was America’s first (and only) colonization experiment in Africa, although the colony of Liberia was founded by a diverse group of private individuals and not supported directly by the U.S. Federal Government. An early look at U.S. Government relations with Ethiopia is provided in this article about the 1st diplomatic mission from Abbysinia to the U.S. in 1919.

The involvement of the U.S. Government in the support of the transatlantic slave trade between Africa, Europe, and the Americas is a subject best left for another time. However, black African slavery in the early American colonies (1620-1776) and during the early years of the newly independent United States of America (1783-1865) set the mold for the predominate attitude of white Americans toward Africa and Africans. During this same period in history European attitudes and behavior toward their African neighbors had a significant impact on American intellectual thought and writing. After all, fear (angst) and intolerance of the other was a major export from Europe to the Americas beginning in the 16th century. These negative attitudes toward “strangers and savages” proved to be devastating for the populations of indigenous people (Native Americans) and the slaves brought in from Africa. It has taken centuries to move beyond racial prejudice, hatred and fear in the United States of America but I would venture that much progress has been made in the latter half of the 20th century. There is still much work to be done.

Negative and unfair images of Africa and black people today still persist in the European and American mentality; reinforced by the portrayal of black people in the media and cinema and television industries. It’s one of the most repeated complaints by Africans in their view of Africa’s relationship with the West. Dave Khune explains it clearly in the introduction to his book “African Settings in Contemporary American Novels (1999):

Excerpt from the chapter - Africa: What place is this?

The tendency of British and American fiction to portray Africans as savage primitives is a tradition that is several centuries old; however, Europeans did not always presume that Africans were primitive beings. The Greeks and the Romans appear to have held mixed feelings toward Africa and Africans…

Joseph E. Harris reports that a late fourteenth-century European atlas includes a picture of Mansa Musa, the enormously wealthy king of Mali who traveled through Egypt on his to way to Mecca in 1324. Clearly, educated Europeans living in the Middle Ages knew that Africa was home to highly developed cultures.

Even as late as the eighteenth century, it was still possible for Europeans to describe Africans in positive terms. Mary Louise Pratt notes that one of the early explorers of South Africa, Peter Kolbe, found the Hottentots to be cultural beings possessing religion, industry, government, and laws. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, “as modern racist categories emerged,” the Hottentots ceased to be described as cultured people “capable of such things as government, professions, opinions or genius”.

Referring to Conrad’s portrayal of Africans as savages, Chinua Achebe theorizes that for Westerners, Africa is a “metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity,” a place where Americans and Europeans enter at their own peril. Novels such as Frank Yerby’s The Dahomean, Alex Haley’s Roots, and Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Echo of Lions have done much to improve the image of Africans in American literature, but literary and popular conceptions about African peoples have been slow to change. Appiah [Kwame Anthony Appiah] maintains that it may be hard for Africans as well as Westerners “to recover from the overwhelmingly negative conception of Africans that inhabited the mainstream of European and American intellectual life by the first years of Europe’s African empires”.

End excerpt___ Note: links to external online resources added by post author

During the late 19th and 20th century period of European colonization of Africa the U.S. Government deferred to its European allies and trading partners when it came to business dealings and government affairs on the African continent. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 set out the agreements for dividing up African kingdoms, territories, and regions between the imperial powers of Great Britain, France, and Germany; King Leopold II of Belgium, The Netherlands and Portugal were also in on the feast while Italy and Spain pulled their chairs up to the table a bit later.

And where were the Americans during all of this slicing up of Africa? Although representatives of the United States were in attendance at the Berlin Conference there were no juicy slices of roast African beef handed out to the Americans. During the latter part of the 1800’s following the bloody American Civil War U.S. foreign policy was guided by non-interventionism and the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

So in fact it was the European imperial powers of the day who were calling all the shots in Africa and it remained that way for nearly a century. Taking into account the Portuguese Colonial Empire and Dutch and Boer colonies in South Africa, European control of small parts of Africa (roughly 10% total) started hundreds of years earlier.

Therefore I have been able to find precious little information online about U.S.-Africa foreign policy from the years 1783-1945, but a good place to start searching for official documents is at the Avalon Project website (Yale University Law School) and at the University of Michigan Library Document Center (United States Foreign Policy Since 1945 and Political Sciences Resources – International Relations). The U.S. Department of State offers the Bureau of Public Affairs and the Office of the Historian websites where you can find information on the subject as well.
It is not until after 1945 that things begin to get real interesting with U.S. diplomatic history in regards to relations with African governments, so I shall proceed on to the birth of the Bureau of African Affairs (1958) and the launch of USAID (1961).

Link to Seven Questions Interview: Q&A Nr. 5-2 (next page)
Link to Seven Questions Interview: Q&A Nrs. 1, 2, 3, 4

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